Monday, April 19, 2010

Singapore in The Fifties

Meaning in the 50s.

There was a different kind of meaning and a different set of concerns as well in the 50s. However, I am not saying that the 50s were superior or better in any way; it was just different.

First as to the meaning. This was, to my mind, born of an affinity with the rhythms of a spiritual life at the same time recognizing that this spirituality lay close to the routine living of the everyday. The line between the spiritual and the human worlds were, of course, separate but at the same time not indivisible. At any moment and given the right conditions one could cross over from one side to the next.

Chinese opera acknowledges this liminality: when on stage a thin red line, symbolizes for the performers. the boundary between the human and the spiritual world. At any moment the spiritual world was present, very much a part of the stage.

In the same way, the annual cycle of festivals at the various temples and the street performances that accompanied these knitted the community and the spiritual world together. The "tang ki" or seance master who invited and serve as a platform for the chosen deity to ascend into him was at that period a common presence at these festivals and illustrated this liminality as well.

The "tang ki" would dance, sway to the power of the deity who assumed his body, that is "borrowed" his body to articulate his presence. During the trance, he might walk or sit in his sedan chair as the sacred procession made its way from one temple, the starting point, to the designated temple where he would be enthroned. Throughout, gongs and cymbals beat out the steady rhythm that announced the deity's presence.

To emphasize the power of the deity the "tang ki" would subject his body to various mutilations. He might pierce his cheeks with a long metal skewer or in more extreme cases hack at his shoulder with a machete until a "v" shaped wound could be seen. Or he could cut into his tongue with a knife or skewer. The blood from these were used to cast amulets for the lucky devotee.

I have also seen firewalking "tang kis" as well as one who climbed up a ladder of knives impervious to the pain. Were they drugged or in a trance? Whatever the case normal human beings would be severely injured by their actions though I have never heard of a "tang ki" being immobilized through injuries suffered from their trances.

Telok Ayer Street and Amoy Street were rich with the cultural traditions of all the various temple worships and festivities.

Today we still see some of this in celebrations such as the Nine Emperors' Festival where Chinese live from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur.

It was common in those days to visit temples on the 1st and 15th day of the lunar month. On special days such as the birthdays of the deities or other auspicious dates the temples would be filled with devotees. Special altars would be erected, the air would be filled with the smoke of burning incense and prayer papers while it would be common to have a temporary stage erected facing the temple's main door where opera performances would be carried out every night.

There would be wooden stools in front of the stage although it would be just as common to bring your own stool or straw mat. One advantage of bringing your own stool was that we, the younger ones, could always stand on it to get a better view if the crowd was very large.

Along the sides of these seats hawker stalls selling snacks, food and drinks. One particularly famous drink was the "Bird's Nest Soup", an expensive and precious delicacy even in those days although this sould for pennies a glass. Of course, this was just a mixture of sugar water, dye and jelly masquerading as the real thing!

The performance came to life soon after evening and a "programme" would normally last till 10 in the night. On more elaborate occasions there would be afternoon performances. Then the noise of the cymbals, suonas and gongs would add to the bustle of the temple devotees as well as the temple orchestra that play the music of the deities.

Until firecrackers were banned in Singapore these also added to the noise although to my recollection the actual firing of firecrackers was always very restrained on religious festivals.

All these was not just entertainment but an essential part of the rhythm that made up the community's year. The year comes round, the birthday of the deity is observed, old pledges are redeemed, thanks give for help received in the course of the year and prayers offered for continued protection and help. Thus it went on, day to day, month to month and year to

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